Fetching Coffee as Sexual Harassment

Is asking your secretary to perform the act of fetching coffee, one of the modern office’s most mundane chores, an implied form of sexual harassment?

“Yes” is according to Tamara Klopfenstein of Levittown, NY.

Tamara’s story, first brought to my attention by Ask A Manager and covered in more depth by the Philadelphia Inquirer, highlights how delicate the relationship between boss and employee can be:

After working for a few weeks, her (male) bosses asked her to get their coffee for them. She declined, and her manager e-mailed her, saying: “This is not open for debate. Please don’t make an easy task a big deal.” Klopfenstein felt that getting coffee “reinforced outdated gender stereotypes,” so the next day, when she was asked to get coffee again, she sent an e-mail that read: “I don’t expect to serve and wait on you by making and serving you coffee every day.” Nine minutes later, she was fired. Klopfenstein promptly sued the company for sexual discrimination and sexual harassment. The judge ruled: “The act of getting coffee is not, by itself, a gender-specific act,” and dismissed the case. But Klopfenstein’s attorneys argue that “Some tasks are inherently more offensive to women.”

Ultimately, a federal court judge threw the case out due to lack of merit, which in my opinion, was the right call.

While a woman fetching coffee for her male bosses smacks of historical discrimination against women in the workplace, the Philadelphia Inquirer points out that,

To show discrimination, Klopfenstein would have had to be able to point to a male worker with a similar status who didn’t have to get coffee.

But the previous receptionists were all women and didn’t object to getting coffee for vice presidents Jay Shrager and Richard Blum, Jackson said.

Putting the harassment angle aside, the real issue at stake here is: can we refuse the parts of our jobs we don’t like?

Ms. Klopfenstein openly refused a directive from her bosses, to bring them coffee everyday at 3pm, something that all of her predecessors had willingly done in the past. Her bosses reiterated their request and explained that it was non-optional. Ms. Klopfenstein then refused to carry out an ‘essential’ (and I use this term loosely) job function and was fired.

I once watched a co-worker go through a similar battle. After several years of working at the company, she one day flat out refused to do half of her job duties—duties which were essential to the business. Management went out and hired a younger, cheaper replacement and a few months later let my co-worker go. Is it disappointing that an experienced employee was let go for a younger, cheaper version? Sure. But management hadn’t wanted to go out and hire someone new. By refusing to do her job, my co-worker forced management to make a choice, and can you really blame them for not wanting to be loyal to someone who “wasn’t a team player?”

I myself have had to do my fair share of grunt work outside the scope of my official job duties. One of the best bosses I ever had the pleasure to work for used to ask me to schedule department meetings for him. I wasn’t his assistant and I wasn’t the leader of the team, although I was in his department. Generally it was common practice for the leader of a meeting to schedule it themselves, so it felt weird that he would ask me to do something like that.

But did I do it willingly and without complaint? Of course.

For something as mundane as scheduling a meeting or fetching coffee, why start a war? Even if you don’t necessarily like doing boring tasks like copying, filing or delivering mail, someone has to do it and why risk ending up on your boss’ bad side over something so trivial? As Audrey Jackson, an administrative assistant at an engineering firm in Center City, put it:

“I would do anything for my boss except sleep with him, because he’s married,” she said.

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12 responses »

  1. Implied?! Not at all! We in the carpentry trade have a long history of picking the coffee bitch to make the run to Dunkin Donuts… and he’s usually the prettiest one.

  2. “…….can we refuse the parts of our jobs we don’t like…”

    Yes, if you are a female, no, if you are a male.

  3. Companies that put in writing general job duties and have the employee read and sign this document Before employment have few job duty related problems.

  4. Making coffee has always been assigned to the least valued employee; it is implied that other duties are less than important than performing the duty of a servant. No job description has ever mentioned making coffee. The men in that company were either very lazy, inconsiderate, or testing their authority. They won the right to have a slave perform menial tasks out of her job description. Perhaps they would have asked a junior male employee to do the same thing, but if they refuse to hire men for such positions, and only hire women, under the expectation that a woman can make coffee for them without complaint, then discrimination and harassment looks and quacks like a duck in this case.

  5. I agree with the outcome as well. The plaintiff has to prove that the discrimination was gender based. Since few men are hired for this role, instances of men being fired for refusing to serve coffee are rare. Maybe more men can be placed in this role to test the theory, but that would mean denying women the job to begin with. A catch-22 for sure.

  6. She was an administrative assistant. The rough outline of this is that while she’s on the clock, she assists her boss with whatever he needs throughout the day. Further, a male secretary would be expected to get coffee for his boss, and a female boss would expect her assistant to get coffee for her, regardless of gender.

    The most probable scenario here is that the woman heard somewheres that she can get out of basically anything by throwing the words “Sexual Harassment” around, and when it backfired she panicked.

    It was a frivolous suit and the courts were completely correct in dismissing it.

  7. I don’t know anything about the law.

    However, the answer to the following question:

    Can we refuse the parts of our jobs we don’t like?

    Is YES! Of course you can. This is because we are human beings endowed with brains and consciences. We are not robots and we are not appliances. Just because we need to make a living does not make use tools!

    I’m sick of hearing people leave their brains and conscience at the door. Then you get people saying things like: “I’m just doing my job.” No, you are not. You are making a moral decision at all times.

    Perhaps this is my nursing training here, but as a nurse, I learned that even if a doctor said to do something, you do not do it if you don’t:

    1. Understand what it is for. This included looking up medications.

    2. Agree with it. Yes, nurses make medical decisions.

    If I was asked to give 100 grams of morphine to a little old lady, I’d so, “No! That’s too much, it will kill her.”

    The people at Enron who stole from the employees were “just doing their jobs.”

    Bringing the coffee to the boss may or may not have been harassment. I don’t know. I think that if it was, it depends upon how it was asked.

    I do believe that this was a symbolic act, however, in many people’s minds, that is old fashioned and demeaning.

    Would I bring my boss coffee? Yes! I love him. He’s a wonderul person. I love bringing and sharing food with people. I consider this a bonding experience.

    When I first started her, the person I was going to replace offered me coffee, and I was touched. I said, “no”, of course, because I didn’t like the dynamic. In another context, I would have said, “yes.”

    Would he ask? No. That is because he understands this concept that asking this is an insult.

    Not to know this is to be as much as a dinosaur who thinks that taking minutes with the secretary should end with a “happy ending.”

    Times have moved on so should the rest of the management. Most of them figured out computers by now, haven’t they?

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  10. Speaking as someone who has run a business for more years than I care to admit to, I have to say I am getting more than a little tired of this whole game of ‘coffee’ that women play in the office. The rules appear to be,

    1. Making coffee must be ‘shared’.

    2. We must take it in turns to make the coffee.

    3. Anyone who doesn’t agree with this is being ‘unfair’ (tears, complaints, threats).

    On the other hand, I notice that when the s**t hits the fan in other areas of office activity, the staying late, setting out to meetings at 6am, nights in lonely hotels, weekend sessions to work how to play it, none of this is shared. It is women with children who enforce the ‘rules’ on coffee, the same who are of course unavailable when times get tough.

    Frankly, when I am in the office, I am busy. If someone wants to make me coffee that is kind, I thank them for it and I will occasionally return the favor. Otherwise I make make my own and it is done a few seconds. I can’t understand why that is unacceptable and frankly I don’t much care. A lady doctor friend tells me that what women are doing here is passive aggressive bullying.

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  12. Why don’t people stop being so damn lazy and get there own coffee. It’s pathetic and shows just how lazy most people really are. Get off your fat ass and get your own cup. I don’t need a woman to fetch me anything, I guess I’m just more comfortable with my own masculinity and don’t need to degrade others to make me feel better about myself. Hey guys it won’t add inches to you.

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